Recently, I’ve been trying to discover more of what’s been called “desert noir.” These are movies where you get the tropes of film noir but instead of in the shadows or at night, they take place under the blazing sun of the American southwest. There are a lot of examples from the heyday of black and white (Ida Lupino’s The Hitch Hiker is a standout example), but there’s also at least one example in blazing Eastmancolor and CinemaScope. That is 1955’s Bad Day At Black Rock, a shining example of how to do the shiftiness and suspicion of noir while everyone involved also looks like they want to get the hell out of the sun for two minutes.
The movie opens with a modern Streamliner train speeding through the desert (the movie was filmed around the Alabama Hills in eastern California). Surprising everyone in the small, duty town of Black Rock, the train slows down and lets off a passenger for the first time in two years. Enter John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) in his black suit and fedora, missing his left arm and coming to town for…something. It’s obvious from minute one that everyone in town is suspicious of him, a man they’ve never seen before and weren’t expecting, but they’re certainly been afraid for a while that someone might come. As he moves through town, trying to get a hotel room in an empty hotel that’s suspiciously supposedly all booked up for a convention, the townspeople try to get information from him but Macreedy is pleasantly unforthcoming.
As the movie goes on and it becomes clearer why Macreedy is there (looking for a farmer named Komoko) and why he wants to find him (and here I will tread lightly so as to not spoil the plot too much), the movie deepens as we learn more about the town and it’s few inhabitants. There’s Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) who it becomes apparent runs the town with his two thugs, played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine at their most thuggish. There’s a local doctor who’s not quite in the inner circle of Smith’s intimidation but definitely knows something is very wrong here, played by staple of the time Walter Brennan, and an alcoholic sheriff played by Dean Jagger who’s apparently decided to give up and let Smith have the run of the town. Then there’s Anne Francis running the local garage, but the movie isn’t that interested in her and she doesn’t get much to do besides renting Macreedy a jeep so he can drive out and check out Komoko’s farm.
1955 is an interesting time to release this movie, as it turns out. Bad Day itself is set in the last days of 1945, as soldiers are starting to come home from Europe and Japan, and Macreedy apparently lost his arm in service in Italy. Komoko, who may or may not have gone missing according to Smith, was shipped off to a Japanese-American concentration camp. The movie never quite goes so far as to dig into how shameful that section of US history is (it would be another thirty years before the country really started grappling with that). So at the moment it’s just coloring for a noir plot of a missing man and dark secrets, one that possibly has a deeper resonance now than it might have for most of the US in 1955.
Bad Day ends after a semi-typical shootout for a noir, with double-crosses and a last-minute escape, but the real ending is Macreedy leaving this dusty little desert town on this sleek modern train, as the local doc asks him to leave the town with a measure of hope. Macreedy looks at him for a second and you can feel him considering whether this town even deserves a little thing like that. It’s such a great Tracy acting moment, where even as he gives the doc a kindness he’s also paying the town back for the troubles and hatred he’s found there. I really love this ending, with the bookend of Macreedy getting back on the train and almost stepping back into the 20th century, away from Black Rock and it’s macho posturing.
This was one of the first big movies for John Sturges, who had spent the last decade making smaller pieces like an adaptation of a Mark Twain story or a biopic of Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Incidentally, he was born in my town of Oak Park, something I never knew before today.) Bad Day at Black Rock showed a new path for him. Working with mainly male casts and maybe one woman, he created a series of really strong ensemble pieces of men butting heads as they worked toward a common goal, the best of them being The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. He’s an interesting director in how well he could use a large landscape but could also work well with small spaces (consider that the same director used the Western landscapes of Seven and the tiny shafts of Escape). He gets to use both modes in this movie, with the blasted desert landscape of the Alabama Hills contrasted with the small spaces of the local jail, or the diner, or the tiny gas station. He was a very effective director at times and this is an excellent example of his skills.